“All nation-building,” our guest today Dmitri Trenin writes in his new, brief history book Russia, “is essentially an exercise in myth-making.” The process Trenin’s translator calls “history politics,” but which I’d call “the politics of history” – how political leaders of the present recast the past to move citizens into accord with their plans for the future.
It’s easier to get away with radical rewrites of Russian history, because there, political change, when it comes, has always come violently and decisively, ending with a chasm between the old regime and the new.
You can tell people what they see more successfully when that chasm – the clashes of class or race or politics written in blood – has pushed the other side, the other perspective, beyond independent examination.
For example, it made it easier to bring Stalin back as a figure of wartime heroism and national unity, when most of the people who lived through the decades of arrests and disappearances, mass murders and mass relocations are too dead to dispute the official revision.
But really, Stalin’s just a brand – a famous name and famous face from a distant past. How his myth is cast is just another of those “more things” that “change.” What doesn’t change, what remains the same, on both sides of every revolutionary political chasm of Russian history is the myth Stalin merely serves …the myth of national unity.
Vladimir Putin’s greatest achievement is that he restored to credibility and subscription the belief that there is a Russian nation and that the more it is unified, the more it can achieve. In 2000, when Putin came to power, the myth of Russia as a country of consequence had gone missing.
It’s return as an article of faith for Russians and an accepted fact for most everyone else, was largely achieved through the myth-making machine of our age, television, or to separate the content from its cover, video.
For the past decade or so, most of Russia’s mythic national achievements have come outside the country, in places where the facts are far away and the presentation of them is centrally-controlled.
Russian strength and unity were the myth-messages from Georgia in 2008 when enclaves of Russians were “rescued” from American-spurred Georgian oppressors.
It is more of the same but more so in Crimea, not vital military ground seized from Ukraine, but “always Russian land,” happy to be reclaimed by the nation. And that it was done, even with the brandished threat of nuclear warfare, in the very face – of the West, the U.S. and NATO made even more mythically marvelous.
Now in Syria, who can say that Russian power, Russian influence and Russian respect aren’t growing around the world? Mythic Russia of imperial power and concentrated purpose is back.
At a cost. There are the costs of empire – weapons, logistics, salaries, bribes, and the costs of estrangement, of making enemies, of sanctions that hit the domestic economy hard. And there are the costs of misrule, of insane inequality and spectacularly wasteful wealth, and of inevitable, intrusive corruption.
The myth of a Russian nation feared and respected around the world is being ravaged by a daily reality of Russians “doing without” and having to give an endless parade of corrupt devils their due.
Dr. Dmitri Trenin is director of the Moscow Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Previously he has been a Senior Research Fellow at the NATO Defense College and a fellow at the Institute of Europe. Prior to 1993, he had served in the Soviet and Russian armed forces, including participation on the staff for US-Soviet nuclear talks in Geneva and teaching for the war studies department of the Military Institute. His most recent books are What Russia Is Up to in the Middle East, and the newest, Russia.